As I’ve written previously, the far right’s reaction to Sen. Thad Cochran’s defeat of their pet tea party candidate Chris McDaniel in the Republican primary for U.S. senator from Mississippi has been unhinged and at times downright racist. Even the less hysterical voices are up in arms that Cochran’s tactics were unseemly or that the “establishment” betrayed them again.
Among the “sins” Cochran is accused of is finding African American leaders to help turn out the African American vote. (The nerve!) Unearthing egregiously offensive comments McDaniel made on his radio show (no!) and skewering McDaniel for campaign gaffes on everything from Katrina relief to support for the inane shutdown (mercy me!). The attitude that the “establishment” doesn’t have to crush the poor tea party folk every time, suggests, I guess, that there needs to be a mercy rule of the inept tea party (if they lose 10 races they get a freebie?).
Listen, for a gang that complains that the Democrats always use brass knuckles and the GOP doesn’t, that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) whiffed the 2008 presidential race by not going after Obama’s association with William Ayres and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and that wanted Rep. Paul Ryan (R- Wis.) to be more aggressive against Vice President Biden in the debate in 2012, this is a peculiarly squeamish attitude about politics. If the “establishment” has learned to recruit minorities, use its opponents’ remarks against them, fight for every vote and run very tough ads, then that should be cause for celebration among conservatives.
And I suspect that some of those now complaining understand this; they simply don’t like when the tactics are used on them. We who believe there is no crying in
baseball politics are a bit amazed, especially since the tea party has been dishing it out for a couple of years, claiming anyone who doesn’t agree with it is a sell-out and not a real Republican. It is not a very attractive way to handle defeat for a gang that wants to cast itself as the “fighters” in the party.
Some of what must be driving the tea party nuts is that its version of politics — the more ideologically pure candidate wins — has been upended. Tea partyers seem to expect that the only acceptable terrain on which to fight for votes is a contest about conservative philosophy and abstract principles. But politics is much more, as they have learned the hard way. It is about getting candidates well-suited to the constituency he or she is fighting for. It is about exploiting the other guy’s weaknesses. It’s about making a personal connection with voters in ways that defy ideology. It’s about telling voters what you are going to do for them, sometimes in crass terms. I’m sure this horrifies some who think getting the loudest talk radio show host on your side is the way to victory, but it’s how politics has been played for a couple centuries in this country.
In the context of the 2016 presidential election, it means looking for not only the candidate with the most attractive position papers but also the person able to win. That entails finding someone with an accessible persona (not necessarily a celebrity, but a relatable gal or guy) who can make a tough argument under pressure without sounding like a bully. It means looking for someone who will be an effective chief executive for his own campaign, who has good ear for what arguments appeal to a wide audience made up of voters who don’t already agree with you and, yes, who isn’t going to whine when a punch is thrown his way. A good sense of self-deprecating humor is an asset as well. If a candidate is thin-skinned, has a string of gaffes and problematic positions in his past and doesn’t relate well on a personal level to nonpolitical voters, voters should look elsewhere.
Losing is hard, especially if you imagine political contests are moral battles for the soul of the country. But Mississippi should be a wake-up call to all factions of the GOP about what it takes to win and why Cochran, for whom I have no particular admiration, finally figured out what the rest of the party needs to learn: how to win.